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Mexico Unconquered and Wobblies and Zapatistas

Power From Below
By Bill Weinberg
WIN Magazine

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History
By Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
PM Press, 2008, 300 pages, $20.00

Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt
By John Gibler
City Lights Books, 2009, 356 pages, $16.95

It is welcome to see two new entries at the bookstore on the Zapatistas and related revolutionary movements in Mexico—issues that have slipped from the U.S. headlines even as nightmarish violence escalates rapidly just across the border. Both of these books also have something to add to the long debate about armed struggle and how it relates to unarmed, civil popular movements.

John Gibler’s Mexico Unconquered is most useful in its first-hand reportage from across a swath of social struggles. Gibler speaks with peasants in impoverished villages of Guerrero and Michoacán, where residents are terrorized by security forces acting under the rubric of drug enforcement. From the U.S. border, he offers a chilling interview with a pollero who smuggles desperate migrants across the line—proffering a perilous desert journey for an exorbitant price. He portrays a lawless society in which the poor are left with the choices of submitting to hunger and humiliation, heading north, or fighting back.

Gibler visits the Zapatista rebel zones in the jungle canyons of Chiapas, where Maya peasants have for 15 years been constructing their own living model of indigenous autonomy—an armed movement that has managed to survive and maintain its turf through political rather than military means.

Two civil movements Gibler focuses on are those at the village of Atenco in central Mexico, which was brutally occupied by police following protests in 2006, and in the southern state of Oaxaca, which saw a popular uprising against a corrupt governor that same year. The Oaxaca movement included marches and sit-ins but also “throwing rocks at the riot police [and] burning tires at the barricades.”

Gibler’s most important contribution is his prison interview with Gloria Arenas—“Colonel Aurora” of the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI). Arenas was arrested in 1999, along with her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales (“Comandante Antonio”) and charged with leading the guerrilla movement in the mountains of Guerrero. She tells how she was politicized in her youth in the Sierra Zongolica of Veracruz, where campesinos faced repression for organizing to defend their lands from rapacious logging operations. The 1998 massacre at Guerrero’s El Charco village—where soldiers killed several ERPI militants and civilian sympathizers in a surprise attack on a schoolhouse—is related. And new light is shed on the ERPI’s emergence from the more Leninist and doctrinaire Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR).

Arenas cites the Zapatistas’ ethic of mandar obedeciendo (command by obeying) as offering a more democratic alternative, in which decision-making power flows up from the base rather than being imposed from above. She also speaks of armed struggle as part of a praxis with civil social movements, a tactic to be used “depending on the circumstances, but not defined by dogma independently of experience.” (True to form, the EPR issued orders for Comandante Antonio’s death when he broke away to form the ERPI.)

More theoretical and frankly meandering is Wobblies and Zapatistas, a series of interviews between anarchist scholar Andrej Grubacic and the revered radical historian, conscientious objector, and veteran antiwar and civil rights activist Staughton Lynd. The conversation starts out with the Chiapas rebellion and the Industrial Workers of the World—“the Zapatistas of yesteryear,” in Lynd’s phrase—but makes brief stops with the community organizing efforts of former steelworkers in post-industrial Youngstown, the 1946 general strike in Oakland, the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, and the 1980s revolutionary upsurges of Central America. Lynd ties it all together with his concept of “accompaniment”—basically, throwing one’s lot in with oppressed, sharing the burdens and risks of their struggles.

Grubacic and Lynd are concerned with the potentialities of movements that seek fundamental social change “without taking over the state,” drawing from both a Marxist analysis of capitalism’s dynamics and an anarchist critique of centralized power. While they are clearly inspired by the Zapatistas, Lynd acknowledges that the Chiapas revolutionaries have fallen short of their ambitions to build a unified movement across Mexico. He also concedes that their intransigent opposition to traditional political parties (even of the left) has been criticized by some Mexican activists and commentators as counterproductive—helping to bring the right to power.

Lynd brings a similarly nuanced analysis to the question of nonviolence, speaking of his personal commitment to the principle and how it developed in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, how he perceives its applicability to many of the struggles discussed—yet without portraying it as an absolute or uniform solution.

Grubacic is from the former Yugoslavia, and inevitably this discussion touches on the question of “humanitarian intervention”—unfortunately occasioning the book’s one failure of intellectual honesty. Grubacic’s question is contemptuously dismissive of those who are concerned about Darfur and Tibet or were concerned about Kosova ten years ago. And Lynd’s answer is just as bad, summing up U.S. war aims in the Balkans as “to destroy the last vestiges of public ownership in Serbia,” without even mentioning the ethnic cleansing. There may be a case to be made that U.S. war aims were those he depicts, and there is certainly a good case against “humanitarian intervention” as counterproductive hubris. But failure to even acknowledge the atrocities is simply dodging the question. One would hope for words that would encourage solidarity between the Zapatistas and the Bosnians, Kosovars, or Tibetans—rather than a glib betrayal of the latter groups.

Lynd is more honest on the limitations and complexities of nonviolence when he looks into U.S. history. He acknowledges the critical role of the abolitionists—“the strongest nonviolent movement in United States history,” at least up to that point. But he also acknowledges that it was the Union army and its merciless war that ultimately destroyed the slave system. “Could slavery have been ended in any other way?” he asks. “Was this humanitarian intervention justified? I do not know the answer.”

Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: the New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and editor of the online World War 4 Report.

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Peace and Prisons

The Not-So-Hidden Connection
By Matt Meyer
WIN Magazine

"We must work together to set free those who are bound, to turn our swords and spears into plowshares.” When Argentine Nobel Peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel lent his words to the foreword of my recently published Let Freedom Ring: Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, he did so to help underscore the links between peace and prisons.

The economic justice issues so prevalent in the growth of the prison-industrial complex are one side of the same coin encapsulating the political issues concerning disarmament, the draft, small weapons, and the growing military-industrial complex.

When the War Resisters League sponsored a forum in Washington, D.C., at the very end of Witness Against Torture’s Hundred Days campaign, spotlighting President Obama’s first 100 days in office and monitoring his commitment to shut down Guantánamo and end torture, we were trying to make the same connections.

Witness Against Torture (WAT) began late in 2005 when a walk to Guantánamo brought a team of U.S. peace activists and Catholic Workers to Cuba to attempt to make direct contact with those imprisoned on the military facility. Beyond raising the moral issue of the inhumanity of torture, the walkers were making human connections across the prison walls.

It is no coincidence that so many who were willing to take the trip south and make the long walk were also connected to the Plowshares community—which for more than two decades have been putting their bodies on the line, destroying warheads and doing significant prison time.

WAT, like the Plowshares movement, is more than simply a symbolic endeavor. “Even if we could not get close to the prison,” noted Frida Berrigan, WRL National Committee member and daughter of Plowshares founders, “with each step we could tell the story of how far the Bush administration had gone to hide its torture and abuse of prisoners.”

Two additional Plowshares activists who were part of the D.C. forum, Susan Crane and Sister Anne Montgomery, shared some of their own experiences in U.S. prisons. Both of them made close friendships with non-pacifist political prisoners from the Puerto Rican and white anti-imperialist movements.

In linking personal predicament with political strategy, some unity was forged—not based on agreement about tactics or philosophy but based on a shared understanding that it will take more than just words to turn the United States toward a peace based on justice.

War Resisters’ International (WRI) leader Joanne Sheehan rounded out the conversation, linking U.S. prison and anti-militarist issues to the work of global anti-conscription and conscientious objector rights advocates. The work of WRI has many practical local implications, as evidenced by Sheehan’s Youthpeace work with young people looking for alternatives to the military in her own Connecticut locality.

Some may still question why a group focused on peace should be interested in prison issues, or why nonviolent activists should be part of coalitions about political imprisonment or torture with people far from the pacifist position. A look at the work of WAT, WRI, Plowshares, or others clearly demonstrates that we are, indeed, fighting the same fight.

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Matt Meyer's Page

Law Enforcement at Home, Military Abroad

WIN Magazine
Fall 2009

Why were there 200 arrests at the G20 and none at the “tea party” protests two weeks before? Policing has historically targeted people of color, poor people, and young people. This is the system that ultimately determines who ends up behind bars. A look at U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan shows a similar trend: civilian targets in small villages with an Arab population.

This time out, WIN asks its readers to look at law enforcement in the United States and the military abroad as two sides of the same coin—coin being the operative word.



Women Resist Behind Bars
By Victoria Law
Illustrations by Rachel Galindo
WIN Magazine

Women have resisted and protested their conditions of confinement since the start of separate female prisons in the 1800s. However, despite the growing body of literature examining female incarceration, little attention has been paid to what women do to change or protest their conditions, thus reinforcing prevailing stereotypes of women as passive victims and the belief that incarcerated women do not organize. Researchers, scholars, and activists continue to focus on the causes, conditions, and effects of women’s incarceration while ignoring the women’s attempts to change or protest these circumstances.

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Prison Abolition, Political Prisoners, and the Building of Critical Resistance: Linda Thurston Talks Community
By Matt Meyer
WIN Magazine

Linda Thurston is a founding member of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, coordinated the New England and National Criminal Justice Programs of the American Friends Service Committee, and has worked with Boston and New York Jericho and with Critical Resistance. Linda is the office coordinator at the War Resisters League national office.

Matt Meyer: You have a long history of working not just for political prisoners, but for the rights and freedom of prisoners in general, as well as for prison abolition. You’ve worked with a number of the key regional and national organizations in this field. Would you share some of those experiences?

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Peace and Prisons: The Not-So-Hidden Connection
By Matt Meyer
WIN Magazine

"We must work together to set free those who are bound, to turn our swords and spears into plowshares.” When Argentine Nobel Peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel lent his words to the foreword of my recently published Let Freedom Ring: Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, he did so to help underscore the links between peace and prisons.

The economic justice issues so prevalent in the growth of the prison-industrial complex are one side of the same coin encapsulating the political issues concerning disarmament, the draft, small weapons, and the growing military-industrial complex.

Read more | Buy this book now | Download PDF now



A Hard Won Freedom: From the Bottom of the Heap
By Mel Motel
WIN Magazine

I had the honor of spending some time with the only freed member of the Angola 3 in April 2009 when he swung through Vermont on his book tour. Starting softly, in front of an audience of 60, King grew in volume and intensity as he arrived at the focus of his talk: prisons as an extension of chattel slavery. His style was narrative and circular; he weaved in and out of events and concepts, blending past with present. The first two-thirds of From the Bottom of the Heap resemble this warm, sprawling narrative, mostly reflections on his childhood as he bounces from rural Louisiana to New Orleans, from grandmother to cops to train-hopping hobos.

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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Hans Bennett
Reprinted from Z Magazine, February, 2009

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project (RCPP), which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with over 100,000 distributed for free to community groups and college classes alike. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be freely downloaded at

Prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write in the book’s introduction that the RCPP’s value “has been to show us how the system of mass incarceration permeates our lives, who is paying the costs of that system and the many ways the system is vulnerable to people who put their thought and effort into organizing to shrink it.” Significantly, the RCPP’s comics “demonstrate that the ideas we need to change the world can be explained simply enough and packaged attractively enough to be used by all kinds of readers.” Prisoners and their families can “understand material usually circulated only among academics and those who focus on policy.”

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Mexico Unconquered and Wobblies and Zapatistas: Power From Below
By Bill Weinberg
WIN Magazine

Grubacic and Lynd are concerned with the potentialities of movements that seek fundamental social change “without taking over the state,” drawing from both a Marxist analysis of capitalism’s dynamics and an anarchist critique of centralized power. While they are clearly inspired by the Zapatistas, Lynd acknowledges that the Chiapas revolutionaries have fallen short of their ambitions to build a unified movement across Mexico. He also concedes that their intransigent opposition to traditional political parties (even of the left) has been criticized by some Mexican activists and commentators as counterproductive—helping to bring the right to power.

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Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women
By Cassandra Shaylor
Reprinted from Left Turn Magazine

In the summer of 1974, women incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York held seven guards hostage in protest of the brutal treatment of activist prisoner Carol Crooks, who had successfully sued the prison for locking people in segregation without a hearing. State troopers and guards from men’s prisons were called in to suppress the rebellion. In the end, 25 women were injured and 24 were transferred without a hearing to the state institution for the “criminally insane.” Despite the attention in both mainstream and activist circles to the uprising led by men at Attica prison in the same state three years earlier, the August Rebellion at Bedford Hills went virtually unnoticed.

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KSR at SF in SF

Readings in October, the Feedback

The readings and Q&A sessions Stan Robinson conducted in October in various Californian cities for the launch of The Lucky Strike are now finished.

Some of them were recorded:

First, the Agony Column had an extensive coverage of the October 17th event organized by SF in SF, complete with readings, panel discussion and interviews. Present were also Eric Simons, who also did a reading of his novel on following the footsteps of Charles Darwin (literally), and Terry Bisson, who hosted the reading and discussion panel that followed. Stan's reading was actually a selection of passages from the Lucky Strike that give you a feeling of what it's about.

In the excellent words or Rick Kleffel: "And with this reading from his novella, you get the best of both worlds. Robinson abridged his story while reading at SF in SF, off-the-cuff, so to speak, reading selections here and there that boil down the story and give a perfect verbal version of the much longer written version. What’s so nice is that when you listen to the reading, you can get the emotional and intellectual shock of Robinson's story. You'll feel the literal blast that he describes as he reads. But because Robinson has read a self-abridged version of his longer story, you can still go out, but the book and read the story to get the fully fleshed-out as well as the live reading audio experience. This is a very clever move on his part, and not just because he sells you a book. No, it's much better than that. As a listener and a reader, you'll get to experience the same set events from two equally powerful perspectives; the reading experience will enhance the audio and vice versa, but in a different manner. It's a fascinating experiment for the writer and the reader."

The reading of The Lucky Strike was followed by a reading of A Sensitive Dependance On Initial Conditions, which is also part of the recent Lucky Strike publication by PM Press (I have/had not read it until now and I found it nothing short of amazing).

Suitably enough, the two authors' novels, one on Darwin and one on Galileo, fuelled the discussion that followed. The process of history, travelling (including a question on Escape From Kathmandu!) and writing. Robinson didn't miss the opportunity to express his disbelief at the technological Singularity, something he sees as a bad recurring science fiction idea that as of lately has replaced the preceding fad, nanotechnology, in the minds of certain SF writers.

Links: the reading; the panel; the interview.

Second, the reading at Stan's "favorite bookstore on this planet": Moe's Books, on October 22nd. The recording includes Terry Bisson's reading from his parodic "The Left Left Behind", a reading of "The Lucky Strike" similar to the above, and a reading of another of Robinson's shorts, "Prometheus Unbound, At Last"!

Also, Shareable has posted an excerpt of the interview Terry Bisson conducted with Stan for the Lucky Strike publication.

Thanks to Ramsey from PM Press for the feedback (and, well, for making the books a reality in the first place!).

If you attended these or another of the readings and have feedback or interesting tidbits to share, feel free to comment below.

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Science Fiction and Politics

By Ron Jacobs

Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane released an album titled Blows Against the Empire in 1970.  Besides the fact that it had an incredible lineup of San Francisco area musicians, it was also interesting because of its science fiction theme.  Loosely based on Robert Heinlein's novel Methuselah's Children, the album was about a spaceship that had been hijacked by a group of revolutionaries determined to create a new world.  If one considers the political milieu of the time the album was created, this desire for revolutionary escape had a certain poetic sense.  The antiwar movement had failed to stop the US war on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the black liberation movement was being murderously destroyed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.  Richard Nixon and his henchmen were enhancing an already existing police state apparatus and, to put it bluntly, it looked like the revolution the Airplane had cheered on in their 1969 album titled Volunteers was nothing more than a failed dream.

Kantner, like many members of his generation (including Jimi Hendrix), was an avid reader of science fiction.  So, since it didn't look like the revolution was going to happen on Planet Earth, why not write a science fiction story where it occurred in the heavens?  The album is a blend of musical styles, from a sweet rendition of the Rosalie Sorrels song "The Baby Tree" to the hard rock anthem "Mau Mau (We are the Amerikon) that begins the disc.  However, the strength of the work lies in its story about the hijacked starship, the struggles within the crew after the hijacking and the eventual decision to begin anew and leave the old world of war and greed behind.

This past October was the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.  The failure of that raid and the subsequent trial and hanging of Brown and most of his troops were some of the first salvos of the US Civil War.  Brown's famous statement at the gallows that the "crimes of this guilty land purged away but with blood" were some of the most prescient words ever written in US history.  They were also a revolutionary call to arms that would propel that struggle against the stain of slavery out of the meeting houses and into the cities,  fields, mountains and valleys of the United States. 

As we approach the December 2nd anniversary of Brown's hanging, try to imagine an alternate scenario.  John Brown and his troops did not get captured that autumn day in 1859.  Instead, they made their way back into the hills surrounding Harper's Ferry and set up a camp.  While militias and eventually US troops gathered in the towns around the mountain where Brown and his men were camped, a fire burned on the mountain like a beacon to all those men-white and black--who desired an end to slavery and a free nation of all men and women together.  Instead of an insurrection fought by slavers and their allies designed to create a nation where the plantation and slave economy would continue to exist, there was an insurrection led by those wanting a nation where neither slavery or wage slavery existed.  Now imagine this latter insurrection succeeding and creating a new nation based on these principles and calling itself Nova Africa. 

This is exactly the scenario science fiction author Terry Bisson has created in his novel Fire On the Mountain. Bisson dedicates the book to the Black Liberation Army, among others.  This edition includes a forward by Mumia Abu Jamal.  Bisson was a member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committees during their campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against racism, apartheid, and the Klan and other racist groups in the United States.  He is also the author of numerous science fiction works, including Voyage to the Red Planet, the sequel to the sci-fi class A Canticle for Leibowitz, and comic adaptations of Robert Zelazny's  The Guns of  Avalon and Nine Princes of Amber.  

Recently re-released by PM Press of Oakland, CA., this novel takes place in 1959 although with more technological advances.  Many of those advances are directly related to the fact that Nova Africa is a socialist nation that has applied its technology to helping people instead of creating profits.  There have been at least two wars with the nation formerly known as the United States and an uneasy truce exists between the current incarnation of that nation and Nova Africa.  The protagonists include a Nova African anthropologist and her family, a historian at Harper's Ferry, and an adolescent slave boy that lived in Harper's Ferry during the period of Brown's time there who makes his appearance in the novel through a collection of papers he collected and wrote down as an old man.

The story takes place over a few days.  The anthropologist, names Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga, is delivering the aforementioned narrative to a museum at Harper's Ferry.  It was the author's wish--her great grandfather--to have the narrative delivered and read on the July 4th centennial of the attack on Harper's Ferry which, for Bisson's book occurred on July 4th, 1859.  She is late with the delivery due to an unexpected longer stay at a dig site she was working on in Africa.  She is also pregnant and is picking up her teen daughter whose father dies in a failed space mission a few years earlier.  Bisson weaves this story in between the excerpts from Yasmin's great-grandfather's papers that describes both his adventures and observations during the time of Brown's raid and the subsequent success of the raiders in their struggle against the United States.  The story moves rapidly and never stumbles.  It is not only an interesting experiment in alternative history, but makes this reader wish it were true.

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Women Behind Bars


From Prison Photography

“These analyses [of the prison system] – coupled with what I had seen firsthand – made sense, steering me to work towards the dismantling, rather than the reform, of the prison system. Resistance Behind Bars should not be mistaken for a call for more humane or ‘gender responsive’ prisons.”

This is the second in a three part mini-series entitled Women Behind Bars, casting an eye over the work of writers and artists dealing with women’s struggle within the US prison system. The first installment featured journalist Silja Talvi’s work. Today we look at the activism of Vikki Law.


“How many people know about the Attica prison riots?” asked Vikki Law. The majority of the audience raised hands. “How many of you have heard of the August Rebellion?” she then asked. No response. Point made.

The August Rebellion was staged in 1974 by women imprisoned at New York’s maximum-security prison at Bedford Hills. Protesting the brutal beating of a fellow prisoner, the women fought off guards, holding seven of them hostage, and took over sections of the prison.


Vikki Law wrote Resistance Behind Bars to counter the historical erasure of women’s prison resistance. The book challenges the reader to question why these instances and efforts have been ignored and why many assume that women do not organize to demand change. It fills the gap in the existing literature, which has focused mostly on the causes, conditions and effects of female imprisonment.

Law has worn many hats in the anti-prison movement. In 1996, she helped start Books Through Bars-New York City, a group that sends free books to prisoners nationwide. In 2000, she began concentrating on the needs and actions of women in prison, drawing attention to their issues by writing articles and giving public presentations. Since 2002, she has worked with women incarcerated nationwide to produce Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and has facilitated having incarcerated women’s writings published in larger publications, such as Clamor magazine, the website “Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance” and the upcoming anthology Interrupted Lives.

Similar to Talvi’s work, her writing is uninfected with academese. Law’s focus is the self-organised activities of women prisoners such as forming peer education groups, clandestinely organizing ways for children to visit mothers in distant prisons and raising public awareness about their conditions.

Law will criticise writing that she deems unhelpful and misleading. For example she refutes author Virginia High Brislin’s work which stated “women inmates themselves have called very little attention to their situations,” and “are hardly ever involved in violent encounters with officials (i.e. riots), nor do they initiate litigation as often as do males in prison.”

On the other hand, Law gives honorable mention to two books that documented women’s resistance at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State: Juanita Diaz-Cotto’s Gender, Ethnicity, and the State (1996) and the collectively written Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison.

Law urges us to acknowledge the existing patriarchy of society. The term feminism has become co-opted by predominantly white and privileged classes. The actions that would have previously fallen under the purview of feminism continue in pockets and without a top-down label. She states:

I think one of the things that is long overdue is that people have to acknowledge how society is still a patriarchy that puts down women in all different ways. Even people in so-called progressive movements refuse to see how this plays out, whether it be in body image or standards of beauty or woman-unfriendly practices like doubting women (or grrrls or trans or queer folks) when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted.

Once such case would be that is described below. Law takes the details from a letter written by the victim.

In the case of Barrilee Bannister, sentenced under Oregon’s mandatory sentencing law, she and seventy-eight other women were sent to a privatized, all-male prison in Arizona run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The approximately 1300 mile move completely cut the women off from family, friends and others whose outside support could have prevented their abuse. Only weeks after the women’s arrival, some were visited by a captain, who shared marijuana with them. He left it with them and then returned with other officers who announced that they were searching the cell for contraband. They promised that if the women performed a strip tease, they would not search the cell. “Two of the girls started stripping and the rest of us got pulled into it,” Bannister recalled. “From that day on, the officers would bring marijuana in, or other stuff we were not suppose[d] to have, and the prisoners would perform [strip] dances.” From there, the guards became more aggressive, raping several of the women. Bannister reported that she was not given food for four days until she agreed to perform oral sex on a guard. (Source)

Private prisons will forever provide opportunities for gross abuse of human rights, but this is obvious and a discussion for another time. Still, on this evidence, Law has a long road of resistance and a lot of public education to provide. I wish her well.


Law’s commitments don’t stop with the pen. She also wields a camera and has contributed significantly to the activist-photography community of NYC.


ABC No Rio through a 6-year-old’s Holga, 2006

In 1997, she organized a group of activist photographers to transform one of No Rio’s upstairs tenement apartments into a black-and-white photo darkroom for community use. Since then, she has remained actively involved in coordinating (and sometimes co-teaching) free photography classes for neighborhood youth. In addition, she has participated in and curated numerous exhibitions at No Rio’s gallery, many with themes addressing social and political issues such as incarceration, grassroots efforts to rebuild New Orleans, Zapatista organizing, police brutality and squatting.

Every Halloween, Law also moonlights as a portraitist for ABC No Rio’s free haunted house for kids. As she explains, “Over 400 kids from the neighborhood show up to shriek and scream their way through the first floor and backyard. Tipping my hat to Tom Warren’s “Portrait Studio” in the 1980s, I set up a portrait area to document some of the kids and their costumes.”

Below is Prison Photography’s favourite.

spiderman vikklaw

Please read Vikki’s extended resume. Check out Vikki’s Flickr photostream. For a list of resources from The Action Committee for Women in Prison click here.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page


Peter Kuper's Diario

By Alex Dueben
Comic Book Resources

Peter Kuper is one of the most productive illustrators and cartoonists of the last several decades, in addition to being one of the most politically active. He's made a mark in many outlets in a wide variety of ways, ranging from his visual style, which even casual fans can easily recognize, to the thoughtful political substance that permeates much of his works.

Kuper has drawn covers for "Time" and "Newsweek," in addition to contributing to "The New Yorker," "The New York Times" and "Harper's." He co-founded the anthology "World War 3 Illustrated" in 1979 and has been one of the guiding editors and contributors since then. Since 1997, Kuper has been the artistic force behind Antonio Prohias' comic "Spy vs Spy" for "Mad Magazine."

Outside of the cartooning world, Kuper has written and illustrated numerous books, including the children's picture book "Theo and The Blue Note." His syndicated comic strip has been collected into two volumes, "Eye of the Beholder" and "Mind's Eye." He's adapted Upton Sinclair ("The Jungle") and Franz Kafka ("The Metamorphosis" and "Give It Up!") into comics.

Kuper's many graphic novels, which range in subject from autobiography ("Stripped") to travel ("Comics Trips"), include "The System" from Vertigo, "Sticks and Stones" from Three Rivers Press, "Speechless" from Top Shelf, and 2007's "Stop Forgetting to Remember."

Kuper's newest book, "Diario de Oaxaca" from PM Press, is a collection of sketchbook pages and diary entries from the year he and his family spent in Oaxaca in 2006 through 2007, a tumultuous time in the city, to say the least. The artist/writer took time out to talk with CBR News about the book and what it was like to live in a very different place than many of those who are fans of his work are used to.

CBR News: Peter, you and your family moved to Mexico for a sabbatical, but why there, and specifically, why Oaxaca?

Peter Kuper: We had first visited Spain. The one constant in our decision was a Spanish speaking country, so our daughter (age nine at the time) would get a useful second language. It was clear we'd have to continue to work at a high velocity if we lived in Europe. Mexico was closer, only an hour off the time zone of NYC, and much cheaper. We picked Oaxaca simply based on a few previous visits. It was a charming 16th century town with plenty of art museums and lots of history.

You mention at one point in "Diario de Oaxaca" that you had visited the area when you were younger. How much had the area changed since then?

It remained unchanged in many ways, except for the traffic. The narrow cobblestone streets were never meant to handle cars and buses, and the number of both had increased dramatically. That and the seven - month teachers' strike were the big differences.

What was daily life in the city like during the strike? Was it really just business as usual for most of the city outside the zocalo and city center?

It was mostly business as usual, minus the business, since tourism dried up and many hotels and restaurants and all the people that depend on tourism were hurt throughout.

Rereading my journal in our first few months (beginning in July 2006), I noted that concern about Oaxaca being dangerous was not a major subject. Still, that may have something to do with my temperament. My wife says it was scarier than I felt it was.

There were barricades in the streets that required navigation and regular marches, but having lived in New York City for decades it didn't seem off the charts that there were some streets more dangerous then others.

I don't mean to minimize the situation. There were some very near misses for us, and many people weren't so lucky.

A lot of Americans have spent time in Europe or Mexico or other countries where strikes aren't rare occurrences like here in the U.S., but are rather a fairly common and expected form of labor negotiation. It's the response, the paramilitary forces and the army being called in, the killing of journalists, that's hard to picture. How does life go on in the midst of all this?

The people in Oaxaca were incredibly kind and friendly. This is what we were experiencing daily, along with the beauty of the town and fantastic year round weather. We had the good fortune of living away from the town center, so we weren't confronted with the troubles every time we walked out our door. After Brad Will, the American journalist, was killed and federal troops arrived, it was very different. Walking past tanks and riot police felt like we'd stepped into 1930's Germany and was very unsettling. Still, we did our work and took our daughter to school - hers was one of the few that remained open - so life did go on, for us at least.

When this happened, what people knew really depended on where they were getting their news. By and large, were people aware of what was going on and why?

People were very aware, but their stories varied and it was hard to know what was the exact truth. Rumors spread easily, so you had to take any info with a grain of salt. Overall, though, people seemed very engaged. Coming from the States, where we knew the president had stolen the election (at least once) and the country had given a collective shrug, to see people willingly encamped in the streets for months and regularly marching against a corrupt politician was inspiring.

At what point did you decide to create a book about your time and your experiences in Oaxaca, and how did you decide upon the format of a combination sketchbook/journal?

It happened incidentally. I had no plan for this. I had been writing for an arts website, DART, and sending drawing out to various publications, including one in Mexico City. They suggested publishing them in a modest way. Like a 64 page book, but they were open to something longer. With that possibility - which came in the last six months of our two-year stay - I began drawing like a man with a mission. Then I realized that the essays I'd been writing for the website would give the book a clearer narrative and fit naturally. I thought it would be fairly easy to assemble, but it took a year of design and printer wrangling to get to the final product.

Why was it important for the book to be in both English and Spanish?

Initially, I thought the book would only be published in Mexico, but I didn't want people who didn't know Spanish to be unable to read it.

When I found the American publisher, PM Press, it made even more sense [to present the book in two languages], since we only had to modify a few pages, which made the printing simple and affordable as a co-pub.

Did your habits in Oaxaca in terms of keeping a sketchbook differ from what you do in New York, and have your work habits changed since your time in Mexico?

I'm still sorting through the impact Mexico had on me. The one thing I've brought back has been my regular sketchbook drawing. Rarely a day goes by where I don't put time in filling my sketchbook. I haven't been anxious to go out looking for illustration work since I am still digesting and can't pick up where I left off. Having "Diario de Oaxaca" published reminded me to just create as much as possible and hope the publishing opportunities follow.

Was the daily sketching something you did when you were younger and just fell out of the habit of, or is this a new habit new for you?

I have drawn in a sketchbook since high school, and I especially kept one when I traveled. I had a book published in 1992 called "Comics Trips" that was my sketchbook from an eight-month trip in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Before the trip to Mexico I'd fallen out of the habit, but that trip brought me back to that very good habit, and I have continued drawing everyday, religiously since we returned.

"World War 3 Illustrated" is still going strong after three decades of publication. When you started the magazine, did you think it would become this enduring a project and would encompass so much?

We didn't think in terms of making it endure, though we're thrilled that it has. There just kept being new subject matter that made us want to create in reaction. Bush certainly gave us a ton of reasons to want to respond through the magazine. He gave us way too much material!

Are you involved in the upcoming issue of "WW3," and what can we expect from it?

Having edited the last issue, which took on and off seven months, I'm taking a break, but it is moving forward full speed with Seth Tobocman and several others editing as we move into our 30th year of publication. The theme is "solutions," but as is the tradition of the magazine, what people are dealing with is more about the problems. Solutions don't come so easily.

A solutions issue seemed appropriate after so many years of writing and drawing about problems. I'm not editing this one since I did the last one, so I can't yet say whether in this issue we come up with solutions to all the world's problems.

You wrote in your diary about wanting to continue taking longer lunches and enjoying siestas. Since returning to New York, have you been able to follow through with this desire?

In this economy? Are you kidding? Most of the longer lunches are due to unemployment and hence less enjoyable!

Speaking of the economy, one of the other big projects you're known for is "Spy vs Spy." With "Mad Magazine" now publishing less frequently, do you have any thoughts on what it means in the scheme of publishing everywhere seeing a decline?

This is a hard time for magazines, and this is another example of the downturn. There are some seismic shifts going on in the publishing world, but I hope that new avenues will open up to replace the old ones that are disappearing. Being a cartoonist, doing what I enjoy as my job is a privilege. That it is challenging to make this a career isn't surprising. In a field like this, the sand is always shifting under your feet and it requires moving even to stay in the same place. I'm pretty restless anyway, so I'm looking for a different place to take my work. My next project may be building sand castles...

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A Hard-Won Freedom

From the Bottom of the Heap
By Mel Motel
WIN Magazine

I had the honor of spending some time with the only freed member of the Angola 3 in April 2009 when he swung through Vermont on his book tour. Starting softly, in front of an audience of 60, King grew in volume and intensity as he arrived at the focus of his talk: prisons as an extension of chattel slavery. His style was narrative and circular; he weaved in and out of events and concepts, blending past with present. The first two-thirds of From the Bottom of the Heap resemble this warm, sprawling narrative, mostly reflections on his childhood as he bounces from rural Louisiana to New Orleans, from grandmother to cops to train-hopping hobos.

Three aspects of this book make it accessible and applicable: King’s aptitude for storytelling—non-linear, conversational, straightforward, and insightful—his eventual explanation of the Black Panther Party’s significance and power, and the details of his own legal battles fought from behind prison bars, specifically the appeal that led to his release in 2001 after 29 years of solitary confinement in Angola State Penitentiary, a/k/a “The Last Slave Plantation.”

In From the Bottom of the Heap, King relates his journey as at once remarkable and unremarkable. While his struggle to organize prisoners and steel himself against retaliation is his alone, the circumstances that brought him to Angola and kept him there mirror the experiences of millions of people in this country: the poor, the uneducated, and men and women of color. What King gives the reader is not a lecture but a seasoned account. It is a picture of racism, guard beatings, corruption, torture, favors, snitches, and inhumane living conditions that anyone can identify with who has been locked up or has a loved one in prison.

Where the book falls short is King’s use of the pages as an educational platform. He could have spent more time on political analysis of the Black Panther Party and description of the tactics that he and the other members of the Angola 3—Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—used to organize prisoners. I also wish the story did not culminate with King’s release from prison but further illuminated the work he has been doing since then to raise awareness about Wallace and Woodfox, who are still in prison.

The legal scholar will find some useful portions, however. Toward the end of the book, King includes a serious, concise account of a civil suit that he won when the Nineteenth District issued a ruling against “routine anal searches.” He also helpfully documents his partially pro se appeal process throughout the 1990s.

When Robert King was released from Angola, he declared, “Even though I was free from Angola, Angola would never be free of me.” With this book, King makes good on his promise. He exposes the horrors of an unjust, brutal system in the hopes that we may all someday be free. King says, “Sometimes, the spirit is stronger than the circumstances.” That he includes “sometimes” is a testament to his honest assessment of reality: that innocence is usually trumped by power. Freedom will not be won without awareness and sacrifice.

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Mel Motel came to Vermont in 2006 to help build a restorative justice-based prisoner reentry program. She continues to meet with and advocate for people returning to the community after doing time, works at Prison Legal News, and organizes with Vermont Action for Political Prisoners. This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News. Reprinted with permission.

Linda Thurston Talks Community

Prison Abolition, Political Prisoners, and the Building of Critical Resistance
By Matt Meyer
WIN Magazine

Linda Thurston is a founding member of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, coordinated the New England and National Criminal Justice Programs of the American Friends Service Committee, and has worked with Boston and New York Jericho and with Critical Resistance. Linda is the office coordinator at the War Resisters League national office.

Matt Meyer: You have a long history of working not just for political prisoners, but for the rights and freedom of prisoners in general, as well as for prison abolition. You’ve worked with a number of the key regional and national organizations in this field. Would you share some of those experiences?

Linda Thurston: When I became the director of the New England Criminal Justice Program of the Quaker-based American Friends Service, one of the big issues was a tendency to lock any prisoners who spoke out on any issues in solitary confinement—sometimes for years. These were clear cases of political repression, locking people up not because they posed any threats but because they were willing to fight for their rights, even as prisoners. Many folks whom I worked with then may not have landed in prison because of political activities, but they certainly got politicized once in prison.

Partly because I was in Boston, where there was a very strong anti-apartheid movement and a very strong Central American solidarity movement, I learned about many people doing time because of refusal to cooperate with federal grand jury investigations. At the Red Book Store in Cambridge, I remember meeting some people—like Tommy Manning and Jaan Laaman of the Ohio 7 case— who are still political prisoners to this day. Kazi Toure, now out of prison and the national co-chair of the Jericho Amnesty Movement, was around in those days, along with his brother, Arnie King, who is also still doing time despite an incredible record of community support and work. I think there are some regional cultural differences that have shaped people’s political development differently. In New York City, for example, most of the political prisoners came directly out of the local Black Panther Party. But in Boston and later, in Philadelphia, with the case of MOVE and the MOVE 9, I had a different framework. While I was working for AFSC, I began to learn more about political prisoners through my own writing and radio projects.

As an AFSC staff person, I was involved in the 200 Years of Penitentiary project, recognizing Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail as the first prison in the USA. The campaign was a way of doing prison abolition work in the 1980s, and I got to dress up in my Sunday best and speak to all the Quaker groups and Methodists and Presbyterians and United Church folks. From there, I got to work with the National Inter-Religious Task Force on Criminal Justice. Those networks, with people like Episcopal Minister S. Michael Yasutake (founding chair of the Prisoner of Conscience Project) building bridges between social and political prisoners, helped create lasting relationships and commitments. Fast forward some years, to the early 1990s, and I ended up working with Amnesty International USA on death penalty issues.

I actually had, from the beginning, some very real issues with Amnesty International. In part, this was because Amnesty refused to name Nelson Mandela, or any number of other people, as political prisoners. I didn’t understand at that moment the human rights movement’s nuanced differences in definition regarding political prisoners, prisoners of war, and prisoners of conscience. Nor did I understand how amazingly egg-headedly legalistic and academistic the whole human rights framework could be. But at that particular moment, between 1994 and 1995, executions in the USA had almost doubled in one year. It seemed important to do that work with those resources, but it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Amnesty is an organization that grows out of the Cold War mentality. They began as a group that issued bulletins on behalf of prisoners of conscience, one prisoner from the West and one from the Soviet Union, trying to embarrass those governments by bombarding them with letters. While I was there, we did begin trying to get Amnesty to pay attention to the case of Black Panther death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. But I could not stay at Amnesty for long.

The job I had at the Center for Constitutional Rights was coordinator of the Ella Baker Student Program, which I used to refer to as my job of training little “baby radical lawyers.” These were young people that we would recruit from various law schools who thought that they wanted to be “movement” lawyers. Whatever issues they were eventually going to work on, it was crucial that they get an education in the history and the current way of looking at the role of prisons in society and the reality of political prisoners. I remember bringing in Attica prison rebellion survivor and representative Big Black in, to come and talk to these law students after we’d shown them the film Attica. It was a strong way of educating and radicalizing people who could have a direct effect on the lives of prisoners.

MM: What were and are some of the issues involved in building bridges between the people who do work around political prisoners and those who work around the prison-industrial complex or prison abolition?

LT: I think there are people who come out of a political context, who make many assumptions about categories such as “social prisoners.” Some people who work on political prisoner cases have, in a general theoretical sense, the idea that prisons themselves are bad, but also that prisons are where bad folks are. If you stole something, you’re a thief. If you killed somebody, you’re a murderer. And that is what you are, that is who you are, and that is all you are. I really have a problem with that idea, maybe coming from my spirituality or maybe just my common-sense political analysis. Nobody is only one thing, and no one is only as bad as the worst thing they ever did. If that were true, we’d all be in big trouble because we’re all human. Some people who won’t do work around social prisoners or politicized social prisoners have this perspective, and many people who do work with the general prison population do it purely from a social service perspective and aren’t interested in working on political prisoner issues. The key is to see the connections between these struggles, and not to pit them against one another. We’ve got lots of work ahead of us.

It also has now gotten way more complicated because more and more political prisoners are spending vast, unbelievable amounts of time in prison, and not getting out. Political prisoners are dying in prison, so the issue becomes more urgent. At the same time, as I’ve said, vastly increased numbers of people are being sent to prison—also for long periods of time. In countries where the concept of “political prisoner” is recognized as a legal category, there may still be human rights problems and justice issues, but the complications and divisions between tend to be easier to deal with. It is agreed that there are political prisoners, and it is agreed that there are major problems in the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Here in the U.S., an urgent task of the current political moment is for folks doing political prisoner support work to recognize the broader context of the PIC.

One place where we’ve seen this take place is around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia’s case has brought so many people from different political movements and perspectives together. In general, though, with all the cases, we need to make more opportunities for all kinds of interaction and discussion. Not to be naïve, but these dialogues between those of us doing basically similar work are an urgent necessity. We’ve got to find greater ways to work together.

MM: You’ve been active, since the beginning, in the development of Critical Resistance (CR), which in some ways tries to present a new framework about how to do some of this work. And you continue to help bridge the gap between work around prison abolition and around political prisoners. Could you describe the current national scene, around the time of the tenth anniversary of CR, and discuss how things have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same?

LT: It may be a new framework and a new concept in this current iteration, but the notion of prison abolition is much older than the 1998 founding conference of CR. I actually didn’t get involved in CR until after that initial national conference in Oakland, but I did attend the conference. There were many folks at the first Critical Resistance gathering who were overjoyed that people were talking about prison abolition again. We didn’t know that over a thousand people would show up, with energy to build local and regional chapters. We clearly hit upon a moment when people were ready to work on issues involving the role of prisons in U.S. life.

One issue that we’ve been dealing with, and need to continue to deal with, is the role of people who have been most impacted by the prison industrial complex. Our organizations can’t just be made up of people who want to work on an issue. It has to include people who did time, people whose family members have done time. These folks must be in the leadership of the movement and the leadership of the struggle, because in many ways they can best understand and convey the complexities of the system on a local and national level. As we all need to step up and become active when that’s needed, we also need to learn to step back and take leadership from the folk who haven’t been in leadership. Some of us older folks need to learn that in regard to the youth, too.

Another thing that’s fairly unique about CR, in my experience, is the way in which the regional organizations reflect the national program as well as the specific political context in a given region of the country. We’ve been weaving a sort of web between the local networks and the national group.

There’s also a great deal of attention in CR given to political education. Far too often in our movements we don’t find out where people are coming from. If somebody shows up for a meeting, we’re so glad that they’re there, we’ll just give them some things to do and tell them when and where to go for the next meeting. But CR really works to build community. I feel very connected to the local folks in the organization, even though I work more with the national. We are in a situation where someone can put a call out and say, “Yo, the sister who was at the meeting last night—her kid just got arrested. Can any of you get to court?” And people do it. It reminds me of working with the groups in Boston when I was younger: that sense of community, of family, of connectedness. That feeling also comes up when I get emails from different political prisoner support groups saying, “So and so on the inside is sick, we’ve got to jump in here and deal with this.”

I guess I’ve come full circle after all these years, realizing that we need the political analysis, we need the political education, we need the strategizing, we need more bodies, and we need resources. But we also damn sure better remember that we’re human beings and we need to support one another on all levels or we’re not going to make it. Sometimes our failure is as simple as calling a meeting at dinnertime and not having so much as a pitcher of water at the table. If we’re going to survive, if we’re going to succeed, if we’re going to win, if we’re going to free folks, we’ve got to get better at doing the human piece of building movement by building community.

From Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, Matt Meyer, ed.

Matt Meyer, despite being a public draft resister, did not go to jail but did contemplate those possible consequences. Former National Chair of the War Resisters League, Meyer is editor of the recently published Let Freedom Ring: Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008).

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Women Resist Behind Bars

By Victoria Law
Illustrations by Rachel Galindo
WIN Magazine

Women have resisted and protested their conditions of confinement since the start of separate female prisons in the 1800s. However, despite the growing body of literature examining female incarceration, little attention has been paid to what women do to change or protest their conditions, thus reinforcing prevailing stereotypes of women as passive victims and the belief that incarcerated women do not organize. Researchers, scholars, and activists continue to focus on the causes, conditions, and effects of women’s incarceration while ignoring the women’s attempts to change or protest these circumstances.

This lack of attention has led to not only an absence of literature but a lack of outside support and resources for and about their issues and actions. Instead of claiming that women in prison do not engage in riots and protest actions that capture media attention, scholars, researchers, and activists should examine why women’s acts of organizing and resistance fail to attract the same public attention and support as those of incarcerated men.

Growing Numbers

The number of women in federal and state prisons has grown twenty fold in the last 40 years, from 5,600 in 1970 to 115,308 by the middle of 2007. What caused this explosion in women’s incarceration?

From President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on crime” in 1965 to Washington State’s “three strikes” legislation in 1993 (which mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for a third conviction), the policy has increasingly been to blame street crime for the nation’s growing civil unrest.

A preoccupation with drug use contributed greatly as well. President Ronald Reagan’s well-known “war on drugs” expanded both policing and imprisonment. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act with mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The act led to a huge expansion in the number of people incarcerated for drug law offenses, from 16,340 in 1986 to 58,260 at the end of 1994.

In addition, the act allowed police and prosecutors to arrest and charge spouses and partners with conspiracy because they took a phone message or signed for a package. Lacking knowledge about drug transactions, spouses and partners are unable to plea-bargain, trading information for a lesser charge. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in federal prisons for drug law violations increased 421 percent.

The system affects women of color disproportionately. Bureau of Justice statistics show that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are in prison. Racial profiling, not an increase in crime among people of color, accounts for much of this overrepresentation: Policing policies disproportionately target inner-city African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Within the past decade, many police departments have increased the use of stop-and-frisk tactics, in which officers stop, question, and pat down those they perceive as acting suspiciously, often people of color.

Also, alternatives to incarceration are less likely to be offered to people of color: A California study showed that two-thirds of drug treatment slots went to white people despite the fact that 70 percent of people with drug sentences were African-American.

Incarcerated women come from the bottom of the economic ladder: Only 40 percent of all incarcerated women were employed full time before incarceration. Of those, most held low-paying jobs: A study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole, or probation) found that two-thirds had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Approximately 30 percent had been receiving public assistance before being arrested. The 1996 welfare reform disqualified those with drug felonies and probation or parole violations. Between 1996 and 1999, more than 96,000 women were subject to the welfare ban because of past drug convictions.

HIV Organizing in Prison

The majority of women enter prison after years of poverty, poor nutrition, substance abuse, and a lack of access to health care. In addition, these women have fewer resources and options for survival than women in higher economic brackets and are often forced to engage in riskier activity, making them more susceptible to diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Women in prison are more likely to be HIV-positive than either men in prison or women on the outside. However, prisons have been slow, at best, to respond to the needs of prisoners with HIV and AIDS. Prison conditions exacerbate existing health conditions, and the inadequate medical care can be life threatening for those with serious health problems.

In 1987, women at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility began the AIDS Counseling and Education program (ACE), a peer education program that cares for women who have HIV/AIDS and combats the fear, ignorance, and stigma around the disease. At the time, prisoners circulated petitions demanding that women who were perceived to have HIV be removed from their housing units. They also ostracized them socially, refusing to share meals or have physical contact with them. Staff members, including medical staff, also knew little about the disease and were afraid to have physical contact with their patients. In one horrifying instance, a woman died alone in the intensive care unit because no nurse or guard was willing to attend to her.

ACE members helped women prepare for their medical exams, working with them to define and articulate their questions. In some instances, they also accompanied women to their medical consultations. In addition, ACE battled stereotypes and fears around the disease. They presented educational seminars, often using role-playing to break through barriers, generate discussion, and examine the issues.

ACE continues today, and its model is spreading to other prisons. In 1991, women at the federal prison in Pleasanton, Calif., started the Pleasanton AIDS Counseling and Education (PLACE) program. When the program started, the prison had no pre- or post-testing counseling, no mention of AIDS at orientation for new prisoners, no special diets or vitamins for HIV-positive prisoners, and no treatments besides AZT, an antiretroviral drug that, when administered alone, enabled HIV to develop a resistance to the drug so that it only inhibited the virus for a short time. In addition, AZT was often administered in overly high doses, causing life-threatening side effects. 

PLACE members began by educating themselves about the disease and presenting their newfound knowledge to others. The process not only increased awareness about the disease but also combated the sense of powerlessness and the infantilizing manner that incarcerated women face on a daily basis. “The small steps of learning new information and presenting it to a group, or of figuring out goals and a program of AIDS education for our sister prisoners, are really giant steps in the process of empowerment, commitment, and enhancing our self-esteem,” recounted founder Linda Evans.

Even prison administrators are recognizing the value of peer education programs. Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center instituted an HIV peer education program. In 2007, peer educator Jerrye Broomhall reported, “The level of ignorance is shocking. Stuff like, ‘I don’t want to wash my clothes after her; what if her panties were bloody?’ People don’t want to share cells, meals, so most women just keep their status a secret.” Two years later, Broomhall reported, “I have seen less ignorance. I have heard people refer to what they have learned in class. Women have said they will teach their children, friends, and family things they have learned in class.”

Abuse and Battering

More than half the women in state prisons and local jails report having been physically and/or sexually abused in the past. The Bureau of Justice found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration. The prison environment, with its male guards, lack of privacy, physical and verbal abuse, and fear, often perpetuates the abuse. Despite these circumstances, women have connected with and supported each other in their efforts to overcome past trauma.

In the late 1980s, women serving life sentences in Marysville, Ohio, formed a support group called Looking Inward for Excellence (LIFE). Members realized that many had been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing their abusers. At a time when abuse and battering were still not widely recognized in either the courtrooms or outside society, they began working around issues of domestic violence.

LIFE members reached out to other survivors, helping them overcome denial and encouraging them to apply for clemency. Their actions challenged the way prisons normally divide—and breed mistrust among—the people inside: “When you’re in the institution, you get to be kind of secret,” recalled one LIFE member. “But as we started to get information, we would put packets of stuff together, illegally Xerox stuff, and kind of under the cover [say], ‘Read this, you know, this is good reading.’” Their efforts led to 18 additional women applying for clemency.

In the end, 25 women were granted clemency.

The actions of LIFE inspired women at the California Institution for Women to organize a clemency drive. Members of Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), a prisoner-initiated support group for battered women, wrote a letter to then-Governor Pete Wilson asking him to consider commuting their sentences and inviting him to one of their weekly meetings so that he could understand how they had ended up in prison. Wilson declined the invitation, but their letter drew the attention of lawyers and advocates who helped the women draft arguments and gather evidence for clemency petitions.

Wilson granted clemency to three, denied it to seven, and made no decision on 24 of the petitions.

CWAA members continue to meet and share current news regarding domestic violence, homicide cases, court rulings, and their own experiences with the justice system. They also discuss possible legal strategies, media stories about women who fight back, and journalists with a focus on domestic violence.

In both Ohio and California, battered women’s efforts not only strengthened and expanded the clemency processes but also raised public awareness about abuse. Even those who were not granted clemency became empowered to speak out about their experiences instead of continuing to live in shame. The advocates and lawyers who originally helped women with their petitions formed the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison to continue organizing and educating the public. More than 15 years later, the group, now called Free Battered Women, continues to advocate the release of women imprisoned for self-defense, and its work has helped free 35 women within the past 12 years.

The Need for Outside Support

In the 1970s, off our backs and other radical feminist publications not only reported on the struggles of incarcerated women but connected their fights with those on the outside, urging readers to get involved. Radical feminists formed support groups for imprisoned women and organized campaigns around their issues. In one instance, they managed to generate enough public and political pressure to shut down the Alternative Program Unit (a closed-custody behavior modification unit for women who were deemed “disruptive”—a label that included lesbians, leaders, or the disobedient) at the California Institute for Women.

Today, Arizona prisons have more than 600 cages where prisoners are placed to restrict their movement or while they await medical appointments or work, education, or treatment programs. Although prison policy prohibits using the cages as punishment, lesbians, targeted solely for their sexual orientation, are often placed in these cages, sometimes for hours at a time in over 100-degree weather. 

Lesbians are not the only prisoners to suffer in these cages. On May 20, 2009, Marcia Powell, a mentally ill 48-year-old incarcerated in Perryville, died after being left in an unshaded cage for nearly four hours in 107-degree heat. Two-and-a-half weeks later, three women at the same prison simultaneously set fire to their mattresses in an attempt to draw outside attention. However, the lack of connections with outside supporters meant that little attention was paid to their action and they quietly disappeared.

Feminist and other activist groups of the 1970s recognized the importance of reaching out to and including prisoners in the dialogue around social justice. Now, when the prison population is more than 2 million, why aren’t we recognizing how our struggles intersect?

As Rachel Galindo, a woman incarcerated in Colorado, put it:

I was thinking about how we prisoners are very cut off from much of the rest of the world, including people who do not support the prison system or people who may be interested in our struggle. So I think that more communication via letters would help. … The communication between two humans concerning their hopes, ideas, and their plights is what allows them to bond in resistance against a system that affects everyone in many different ways. We prisoners would be inspired to see another position of struggle and that, though they may differ, all struggles are shared. This would strengthen resistance both inside and outside of the prison gates.

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Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, and mother. She is a co-founder of Books Through Bars–New York City, an organization that sends free radical literature and books to prisoners nationwide, and editor of the zine Tenacious: Writings from Women in Prison. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009). Rachel Galindo’s artwork and writings about life at the women’s prison in Pueblo, Colo., have appeared in Tenacious and Resistance Behind Bars. Her art has also appeared in the Canadian zine Kiss Machine and will be on the cover of the upcoming Mamaphiles: A Mama Zine Collaboration.


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